National Spinal Cord Injury Association Resource Center

Factsheet #11:
What is a Physiatrist?

Many people are unaware that there is a special branch of medicine specifically dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of physical disability. Physiatrists are doctors who are certified as specialists in rehabilitation medicine by the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. The area of medicine they practice is called "physiatry."

Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) was born in 1946 in response to the challenge to help disabled citizens reach their maximum potential. What is so special about these specialists? After completing medical school and obtaining an MD or DO degree, they study four more years and take two extra examinations, one written and one oral. The purpose of this extra training is to make sure that physiatrists are focused on the patient as a whole person. Most physicians deal with illness and possible threats to life. The physiatrist deals with functional loss and threats to living fully -- the physical and psychological disabilities remaining after initial medical or surgical treatment.

The physiatrist often coordinates a team of other doctors and health professionals in developing and carrying out a comprehensive rehabilitation plan which extends beyond hospital walls into the patient's family, community, occupation, friends, and ultimate life style. This rehabilitation team may include physical, occupational, and/or speech therapies, nurses and doctors from various specialties, including neurology and orthopedics, psychologists, counselors or social workers, rehabilitation engineers and others.

The physiatrist's success comes through a team effort where the patient is an integral part of the team process. Each improvement in function, however subtle, can significantly improve the life of a patient.

NSCIA 8/95

ED: Adapted with permission from the September, 1987 issue of New World for Persons with Disabilities, a publication of California Association of the Physically Handicapped, Inc., "The Pair-A-Docs of Health" by Julie Madorsky, M.D. & Art Madorsky at Casa Colina Hospital in Pomona, California.


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